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The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)
A Masterpiece Despite the Fundamental Flaw
This is one of the most popular and best-remembered BBC drama productions of all time. As well as drawing record audiences in the early seventies, it spawned the equally impressive follow-up - Elizabeth R. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is not held in such high regard without good reason. It is perhaps the most historically accurate dramatic account of this period in history we will ever see.
As well as its accuracy, the series is remembered for the performances of the actors. Keith Michell shines throughout as King Henry aging from an athletic young prince to a monstrously obese tyrant. All of the actresses deliver sterling performances as the wives. Standouts from the supporting cast include Sheila Burrell as the conniving Lady Rochford, Wolfe Morris as manipulative Thomas Cromwell, Patrick Troughton as the Duke of Norfolk and Bernard Hepton as Archbishop Cranmer, a role he was to reprise in Elizabeth R and the 1973 cinema remake of this series.
The costumes and makeup for this series cannot go unmentioned. They are little short of outstanding. One would almost believe Keith Michell was swapped for an older, fatter actor for the latter three episodes and the costumes change throughout, depicting shifts in courtly fashions.
CATHERINE OF ARAGON Perhaps the least lavish play in terms of production values, but among the better ones for scripting and acting. It begins, rather ploddingly, by covering Catherine's time in England before her marriage to Henry. When they do wed, the story skips abruptly to Henry's courtship with Anne Boleyn and the divorce of Catherine. Midway through this episode Anne Boleyn is Queen and Catherine is left dying away from court. It closes with her death in 1536.
ANNE BOLEYN A somewhat disappointing installment, despite wonderful acting and a sharp script. Anne is without a doubt the most famous wife of Henry VIII and the one who has provoked the most interest from historians, yet much of her life goes untold in this series. The earlier events in her story were rushed through in a handful of scenes in the second half of the Catherine of Aragon episode, and this episode focuses entirely on her downfall. Half of this play is dedicated to the last eighteen days of Anne's life, in the tower. Dorothy Tutin's fine performance brings this play back on par with the better ones in the series though.
JANE SEYMOUR Something of an anomaly within this series. It breaks with the continuity of the other five plays by covering events that had already been dealt with in Anne Boleyn's episode. The result is that Anne's execution is depicted twice during the course of the series. It also stands out from the rest in terms of production. The other five episodes are filmed as theatrical pieces whilst Jane Seymour is visibly an example of television drama. It's a shame that perhaps the dullest of Henry's wives gets by far the best treatment in the series. The real mystery of this episode is why the format suddenly changes before reverting back to the old style for the final three installments.
ANNE OF CLEVES It was never going to be easy to write a ninety-minute play about a largely unimportant, six-month-long mistake, but everybody involved seems to have made their best efforts here. Anne of Cleves is interpreted as being far more intelligent and witty than she cared to show in the English court and Elvi Hale plays her well. It's very absorbingly written too.
CATHERINE HOWARD It's difficult to decide what to make of this episode. The script has Catherine as a match for her ill-fated cousin, Anne Boleyn, with cunning intelligence, when she was, in fact, a frivolous girl who was thrust too high for her own good. It is, nonetheless, a good adaptation of her story and Sheila Burrell is fantastic as Lady Rochford. As with all the other episodes, there is a reluctance to paint Henry in a bad light here and Catherine almost comes out as the villain of the piece.
CATHERINE PARR Perhaps the most neglected wife in public interest, Catherine Parr's story is actually full of intrigue. This episode deals with her strong religious views and her enforcement of them which nearly sent her to a grizzly fate. Unlike the others in the series, this play relies heavily on dialogue rather than action and it closes the story well.
So the only real failing of the series is not that it is shown in six episodes, but that one episode is dedicated to each wife. The story could have been told more comprehensively if parts 1-3 dealt with Catherine of Aragon's time as Queen, her fall from grace in favour of Anne Boleyn, the divorce, the religious reforms brought about by the King's desire to marry Anne Boleyn and have her children as heirs to the throne, Anne's marriage to the King and her eventual downfall. Jane Seymour would be best dealt with in part 4, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard merged together in the fifth part, whilst Catherine Parr and the King's death could be covered in the sixth.
This criticism aside, the series has earned every word of praise ever spoken for it. It is one of the best nine hours you can spend watching a television drama, so go out and watch it.
Henry VIII (2003)
Good, but not great
Well this is just another telling of the story of England's most famous monarch, and to be very honest, it was OK, but it's been done better before.
It did have numerous strong points. Firstly, some of the wives came across particularly well. Helena Bonham Carter gave perhaps the best Anne Boleyn to date (it would be a battle with Dame Dorothy Tutin for the title), sticking to what is known about the real woman, whilst still giving a very moving performance. Katherine Parr, however brief her appearance may have been, was another winner in this production, as this is the first time her character has been accurately and well portrayed.
The acting was very good overall, but Ray Winstone stuck out a little as the King. The rest of the cast were in Tudor mode, poshing it up and giving it their all, whilst he stuck to his usual cockney gangster style. However, this aside, he did portray the King well and was the first Henry VIII to date to show any form of remorse or concern following the execution of Anne Boleyn.
However there were short falls. The single biggest problem was that it was all too glamourised - did we really need to see the executioner hold up Anne Boleyn's severed head? Did they really need to alter history and have the Queens beheaded before baying crowds, just for that dramatic effect?
There were also some questionable interpretations of history. The Duke of Norfolk's role in Catherine Howard's downfall has been altered completely here (again, all done for thrills). Some scenes were very badly juxta-posed - to any viewer unfamiliar with the history behind this story, the film would give them the impression Jane Seymour had died after been punched in the face and thrown on the floor by her violent husband.
Just as some wives came across well, the rest came across very badly. Katherine of Aragon, rather than the respected and virtuous woman history paints a picture of, is an incessant whinge here - there's nothing likeable at all in her. Anne of Cleves appears twice, but doesn't utter a word in either scene, so she doesn't come across at all. Jane Seymour was wooden - the portrayal of her arouses no feelings whatsoever.
To summarise, it's all very glitsy and modern. The story is mistold in many key places. The only thing that really makes this worth watching is the star performance from Helena Bonham Carter. If you really want to see this story well told, invest some time and patience in watching the complete 1970 TV series 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII'.
The Day After (1983)
Far Inferior to Threads
I have just came upstairs having watched The Day After on the Sci-Fi channel and I must say I'm not particularly impressed.
I might as well get straight to the point and explain the single biggest problem the film had. It was back-to-front! The (tedious) characters in the film were so busy having their own little (melodramatic) arguments, (petty) squabbles and ridiculous scenes that the nuclear war element of the story ended up playing second fiddle. Watch Threads (for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Nuclear Holocaust genre, Threads is the UK's offering, made at about the same time) and you will see that the characters insignificant little lives play a big role in the first section of the film. But after the war we see their lives break down as they lose their place in the world. Well why didn't this happen in The Day After?
This led on to other problems, which obstructed the film from going anywhere or making any sort of a valid point. If the day-to-day lives of the people are little-changed by a nuclear war tearing their homes down around their ears, then how is the film going to show any sort of breakdown in society as a whole?
Another quibble is that it just doesn't go far enough. Threads continues for a long time after the nuclear strikes occur. It begins in 1983 and ends some time in the late 1990s, allowing us to see how society gradually breaks down and collapses over time. This also allows for showing minor steps forward that are made, such as the re-invention of the steam engine. Threads shows us the carnage but somehow leaves the message that "something" will claw its way back. The Day After doesn't have nearly as much depth.
In fact, immediately after the explosions are over there is very little evidence they even happened at all. What happened to the raging firestorms? Burnt out over night did they? And how did some people survive being caught in the blast wave, with barely a scratch to show for it, whilst others incinerated? I'll tell you why... We are told what's happening, but never WHERE it's happening. The film, particularly during the attack scenes, jumps from location to location without explaining it to the viewers. Whilst it looks one person survives and one dies when the fire catches them, the story neglects to point out that they are 60 miles apart at the time.
I could go on much longer, but I don't really think I need to. With such a non-existent foundation, how can there be anything good about this film? Rather than concentrating on how the war affects the individuals, it's almost reversed to how individuals affect the war; any atmosphere created in the pandemonium scenes is totally destroyed when we are shown small groups of people discussing how they would rather stand about in the open air (during a nuclear war) than go down in the dark cellar; there's no continuity - how can a stampede of people scrambling for cover, and a wedding ceremony be occuring simultaneously, in the same city, at the moment of a nuclear attack? It's just cheap trash, made for scares - and it fails.
If you really do want to see a good film on the subject, rent Threads.